Sometimes I wonder why I lug my bag through airports, following my own recommendation to pack light enough to carry on and avoid checking any bags on international flights. It can be a drag, dragging your bag through airports. But when scrambling with last-minute changes in flight plans, those without checked bags are far more nimble. Over the years I've learned some tricks on dealing with European airports. Here are a few of them:
Pack Light and Carry It On: When you carry your own luggage, quick, last-minute changes in flight plans become simpler. A small bag sits in the overhead bin or under your seat; when you arrive, you can hit the ground running. It’s a good feeling. When I land in London, I’m on my way downtown while everyone else stares anxiously at the luggage carousel. When I fly home, I’m the first guy the dog sniffs.
It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: I'll often ask airport staff for small favors, and so should you. I'll ask the gate agent if she can seat me in the exit row. I'll ask the car-rental agent for the easiest way to get out of the airport. And if I have a tight connection and there are lines at passport control, I'll ask the attendant politely if I can use the "elite flyer" line instead so I can make that connecting flight.
Just Say No to Exchange Booths: At airport exchange booths such as Forex or Travelex, you lose around 15 percent when you change dollars to euros or other currency. When I arrive in Europe, I head for an airport ATM, load up on cash, and keep it safe in my money belt. I’ve never been to an airport in Europe that didn’t have plenty of ATMs.
Appreciate Airport Amenities: You may be jet-lagged and just want to get to your hotel, but take advantage of airport services before you leave. Stop by the tourist information office for maps, museum passes, subway tickets, and advice (usually they're less crowded than the downtown office). If you need an international phone card or SIM card for your mobile phone, you should be able to find one in an airport convenience store. I’ve also found that free Wi-Fi at executive lounges in airports often leaks into the main hall. Just sitting against the wall, I can get online for free.
Know Where You're Going: Smart travelers download airport terminal maps to their smartphones or print them out before they leave. You can also look for websites with detailed instructions on how to get from your arrival gate to the center of the city (e.g. for Paris and Rome). Google has even started mapping airport interiors with its Street View program.
Avoid Taxi Scams: If you want to take a taxi from the airport, it’s better to head for the official taxi stand and join the queue rather than flag one down. It should have a big, prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Avoid using unmarked beaters with makeshift taxi lights on top.
Don't Get Lost in Translation: Nearly everything is translated into English at European airports, but you still need to pay careful attention. For example, the shuttle bus between terminals at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport is called the CDGVAL — you have to look carefully to see that it is also marked "Airport Shuttle" in smaller letters. At the Frankfurt airport, regional trains depart from the Regionalbahnhof, while long-distance trains use the Fernbahnhof.
Watch Out for the Name Game: Budget airlines sometimes use obscure airports. For example, one of Ryanair’s London hubs is Stansted Airport, one of the farthest airports from London’s city center. Ryanair’s flights to “Frankfurt” actually take you to Hahn, 75 miles away.
Having Happy Returns: When it's time to fly home, be sure you know your departure terminal before you leave for the airport. Don't count on the taxi driver or shuttle bus driver knowing where you should be dropped off. For example, at Rome's Fiumicino Airport, American airlines flying direct to the US depart from Terminal 5, which is a separate building not connected to the rest of the terminals. If your driver leaves you at the main terminal, you'll have to take a shuttle bus — it’s too far to walk. (Flight Track–type apps give you terminal details reliably and can be a huge help.)
Most European airports are slick, modern, and well-connected to the city center, but they still can be a jumble of tired travelers, torn-up terminals, and tardy taxis. Channel your inner Boy Scout and be prepared. Expect to travel smart…and you will.